Dark humor is the flavor of the month at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical
Museum. One of the works on display is a drawing of a man with a big smile on his face, who's surrounded by a backhoe, a groundskeeper in overalls and three police detectives. He's inside a coffin, above an empty grave. "Anyway, I really appreciate you fellows exhuming me!" he shouts gleefully.
It’s one of more than 40 eccentric, idiosyncratic, original cartoons and book illustrations by Gahan Wilson featured in the exhibit "Master of the Macabre," through Sept. 5.
FEARSOME AND FUNNY
Gahan (an old Irish name that rhymes with "Hey, man") Wilson was born in 1930 in Evanston, Illinois, during difficult times to sometimes neglectful parents. Like many kids, he surrounded himself with imaginary friends. But unlike most, he used them to people a fictional world filled with the fantastic, fearsome and funny, and then shared them with the public.
Wilson reached the pinnacle of his success as a cartoonist creating covers, illustrations, and cartoons for publications like The New Yorker, National Lampoon, Playboy, Colliers and Look Magazine for more than 50 years. For 25 of them, he lived and worked in Sag Harbor. "He's one of the most popular and instantly recognizable cartoonists on the planet," said museum director, Richard Doctorow, who started organizing the retrospective when Wilson died in 2019.
Doctorow had planned to put up a collection of prints, but when he contacted Wilson's stepson, Paul Winters, about the show, Winters offered to lend the museum originals — including some of Wilson's most famous. "It was pretty amazing," said Doctorow, "I never thought that we would be able to get enough original art to create a show."
Winters, who curated the selection, explained, "I know Gahan would've been touched to have his work there. Gahan loved Sag Harbor."
Look for cartoons and illustrations filled with creepy, spooky, frightful scenes, but all with an undercurrent of hilarity and fun. "He's looking at humanity through this sort of warped fun house mirror. The people that he's drawing and the comedy, it's understandable, but it's always just a little off kilter. You're seeing a very unique sense of humor and a very unique artist at work," said Doctorow.
"Gahan was very childlike, always," Winters said. "I think a lot of people get bitter, and they get burned by the world and don't see the beauty of a sunrise or a tree. He kept that sensibility that artists have. He also talked about how artists are very dangerous individuals, because they can make people think about things. That's what he did."
Wilson did it so well that in addition to winning countless fans, he's been cited as a major influence by writers, comedians and directors like Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black, Bill Maher, Stephen King and Guillermo Del Toro. "Everybody loves him," said Winters.
THE CREATIVE YEARS
The show spans Wilson's creative years, from the early 1960s to some of his most recent pieces, including 10 cartoons that have never been seen by the public. "He had a number of cartoons left over that just weren't published. He always talked about doing a book called 'Gahan Wilson's Rejects.' " said Winters. "They're very funny."
Laugh along with a three-headed fish, aliens from outer space and comic misfits of all manner, while gaining a deeper understanding of Wilson's art. "Gahan both left you with laughter, and he made you think. He's not like a comedian that's just looking for a gag," said Winters, who noted that Wilson studied at the Art Institute of Chicago to perfect his drawing skills. "I think that whole combination makes for a very powerful punch."
It's hard to pick a favorite, but Doctorow mentioned one cartoon that speaks about both Wilson and Long Island. "It's a picture of a wind-swept winter beach. All the leaves are off the trees. The mother and child are wrapped up in winter gear and the fellow is in a beach chair in a bathing suit. And the caption is 'It's time to go back to the city, Richard,'" he said with a chuckle, adding, "It's wonderful to get some levity back out in the world that people can come and enjoy."
WHAT "Master of the Macabre"
WHEN | WHERE Through Sept. 5, 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday (reservations recommended); Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, 200 Main St., Sag Harbor
INFO $8, $6 seniors and students, $3 age 11 and younger; 631-725-0770, sagharborwhalingmuseum.org